Tag Archives: Ochrid

Belgrade: Random notes from July 2014

7 Sep

beograd-1910Belgrade 1905 (click)

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“Post”-something. Not post-apocalyptic or Blade Runner-ish or all the nonsense that people used to write about the city in the nineties or after the war (when, maybe, I don’t know, it did feel like that), but definitely the sense that something is over and no one has any real idea of what this is now or what’s coming next. A certain optimism about the future though, which is probably just an inherent trait of its inhabitants, both leavened and sobered by the kind of biting black humor that’s not the only thing that reminds me of Russians.

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You’re already one foot out of, or may have already left the Balkans here. This was particularly striking to me after seeing so much of the southern Balkans just a month or so ago. Where I have come from, I mean, to compare to? Argyrocastro is an Ottoman jewel in stone; Ochrid a truly archontiko little city. The rest: Tirana, Podgorica, Tetovo, Skopje, the garish hideousness of Priština; were all obviously Ottoman wood-and-plaster hovels until the communist cement blocks went up.

Here you’re in Mitteleuropa already, in a city in that never was — except for temporary occupations — but could’ve been, a handsome Hapsburg town. It’s most beautiful from the opposite shores of the rivers that hem it in all around, with the city high on the bluffs overlooking its entire region. It reminded me of Kiev a little in this sense, though a much more recent city in terms of basic architectural stock and without Kiev’s glut of spectacular Baroque churches; in fact, until the first Serbian uprisings of the early nineteenth century, the population was predominantly Muslim. (Actually there’s hardly any religious architecture of any quality or beauty at all. There’s the small, pretty Baroque cathedral of the city just outside the walls, in what was probably the suburb where Christians were allowed to live in Ottoman times and that’s about it. All the city’s other churches that I saw are these genuinely grotesque Neo-Serbo-Mediaeval monstrosities of Orthodox nationalism; the kind they’re building all over Greece now too.)

Knez Mihailova and Kralja Petra Streets — the main pedestrianized drags — and the Cathedral spire at bottom.  (Click on all)

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But you understand a great deal about Serbian history just by standing up on the peak of the Kalemegdan fortress, the sprawling castle that covers the highest, northernmost peak of the peninsula and you realize that you’re standing on the last, frontline hill of Balkan rock, where the Danube meets a whole huge complex of river networks from north and south and that the expanse of green mixed with suburb spreading out in front of you is the beginning of the vast Pannonian plain that stretches out to the Carpathians in one direction and eventually the northern European flatlands that flow all the way to the Baltic in the other. (See map at top.) Apparently and according to Misha Glenny, the Ottomans called Belgrade the “darul-al-jihad,” the House of War (though why this wouldn’t apply to so many other places, I don’t know) and you can see how easily defensible but also temptingly assailabale the site is; it’s the one place you have to control to continue your drive either north or south.

Belgrade-Kalemegdan-at-dawnThe Kalemegdan (click)

Kalemegdan from across Sava(click)

You also realize just how far north – when you think that Stefan Dušan’s empire stretched as far south as the Gulf of Corinth and he often held court east of Salonica at Serres – the center of gravity of the Serbian nation has shifted over the centuries, to lands so completely different, even ecologically, the flora and fauna, that it becomes easier to isolate a glorious mediaeval past in some mythic compartment in the nation’s head – the two sides of the Aegean, in our case, for example, were never so different – and that that can have all sorts of psychological consequences. I’m, of course, thinking of Kosovo mostly, but more on that later…

DusanTerritory_14cStefan Dušan’s empire at its height (click)

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Lots of leafy attractive streets, at least in the neighborhoods that stretch immediately south and east of the Kalemegdan. Funky sidewalk cafes and bars. Only a couple of very late nineteenth-century neo-classical structures. Most of the city seems to be a twentieth-century creation: attractive Art Nouveau and Art Deco apartment houses; some later stuff that could kind of be described as late Bauhaus-y even, like some neighborhoods of Tel Aviv; more proof that Yugoslavia was far cooler than any other communist country and more reason to be pissed off that things ended they way they did. A certain shabbiness, that I thought only added to its charm, but that made me wonder what’s going on economically. There’s way too much high quality housing stock in potentially high quality neighborhoods sitting there looking empty and uncared for and under the right circumstances the whole place seems primed to launch into a massive gentrification and real estate boom. If I had any extra cash lying around I’d buy something now. In any event, for a city that’s been beaten up badly three times in less than a century – maybe not as bad the third time but in a manner just as morally reprehensible – it’s looking ok.

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IMG_0828The Rakia Bar, my favorite spot in all of Belgrade, delicious rakia made from anything imaginable, quince was my favorite, lugged three bottles of it with me, supposedly to share with friends in New York, but they all got swilled down in Russia.  The Rakia Bar is the site of the famous: …rakia with M., and what’s with me and all the Djoković… post from July.  (I think whether you say ‘rakia” or rakija” is a regional dialect difference, with the palatization that the “j” represents more common in “south-western” dialects: — western Bosnian, Herzegovinan, Montenegrin. — but not sure.  I know that “river” is “reka” in some regions and “rjeka” in others.)

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And some of the city’s few remaining Ottoman-era, or at least Ottoman-style, buildings.  The top being the residence of some saint or something — the bottom the royal residence of some Obrenović mistress I think.  Very uncharacteristically of me, I just wasn’t into too much historical research while there.  The city is just too much fun.

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The food is great; predictable but always competent and consistently delicious. A bodybuilder’s paradise: every plate comes piled so high with a mountain of grilled protein that no normal-sized person can be expected to pack it away, but appetites here, in every sense, are big. A vegetarian’s nightmare: and if you persist in your adherence to that silly creed, expect to eat a lot of very good tomatoes – in the summer at least – with huge grated piles of a great cheese they have that’s somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between feta and brindza. If you’re a vegan…and/or have gluten issues too so you can’t eat the great bread either or even try the börek, then maybe arrange for sessions to be fed intravenously at a local hospital or just don’t come at all.

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On the sign and menu of an otherwise sedate, old-fashioned feeling Bosnian restaurant with great ćevapi, the ubiquitous little köfte, a homey cellar place that feels like an old Moscow traktir or something… If anyone can explain the symbolic intention behind it, they get my Umberto Eco semiotics award for 2014.  Really, can anyone tell whether this is supposed to be a joke or not?

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Much more in keeping with Serbs’ smart, cerebral, black humor: this t-shirt, marking the hundredth anniversary of the start of WWI, which I thought was priceless: “It’s a matter of Princip.” Fantastic…

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The language is – excuse my language – a total hard-on. I’ve already got my affinity for Slavic phonemes from my Russian days — though sometimes it seems they came out of the womb with me – and on top of it it’s tonal, too, with rising and falling stress and long and short vowels like classical Greek. The combination is magically sexy and something I could listen to for hours dumbly without understanding barely a word. It also makes it, unless you’ve dedicated some serious study to it phonetically, almost impossible to pronounce correctly. The street I lived on was called “Dobračina,” for example, in Dorćol (from the Turkish “dört yol” — “four roads.”)  And taking my cues from my Russian, which is really no great help since it has free stress and constantly surprises you also, I would say: “Do-bra-či-na.” But whenever it was repeated back to me it sounded like “Do-bra-či-na” or Do-bra-či-na” or even some combination of both, but never like what I had said; the lack of dynamic stress makes it sound like emphasis comes scattered in varying degrees of strength all over a word and not just on one syllable. Tempting to take it up. But I have to resist NikoBako tendencies to scatter my energies all over the place at once and never quite acquire full mastery of anything. Maybe later.

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The place’s greatest pleasure is its people. They have a quality that I’ve always struggled to express in English but is nearly impossible and makes me constantly have to resort to other languages. The somewhat dated Spanish “altanero” works – “alto” is your cue there – as does the more popular term still in use in Spain, the complex of traits referred to as “majo,” which I’ve tried to describe several times elsewhere (such as in this post: Un Verano en Nueva York).  “Αγέρωχη” works, the word Cavafy uses to describe Anna Comnene, which Keeley and others, I think, mistakenly translate as “arrogant” or “haughty,” but which for me means something like “breezily confident” and again could almost be a cognate for the Spanish “airoso.” But it’s a type of confidence that isn’t entirely about your ego, but one that obliges you to be open and generous and welcoming with others as well. The media and its pundits have fed us so much crap since the nineties about Serbs’ pathological and self-aggrandizing sense of their own heroism, that it’s impossible to even tell what’s true or not. But if they are that conscious of their heroic mantle, they certainly wear it lightly, like a people who have nothing to prove to you or really could give a shit about what you think of them. This means almost none of the tough guy, hyper-butchness we might be conditioned to expect. In fact, despite the borderline cockiness, women and men are almost always polite and unfailingly warm; sweet and tender even, like Russians when they get in their Russian moods. And with Serbs you don’t have to pry off the cast-iron mug first to get to the sweet part like you have to do with Russians.

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One great thing about Serbian women, aside from leggy and sexy and gorgeous and everything else you’ve heard: they’re real pals. This is going to sound totally sexist to some, but I didn’t mind the first time I was called sexist in my life and it certainly won’t be the last. They have this uncanny ability to hang out comfortably with guys. They’re not cloyingly clingy. They don’t demand attention through passive-aggressive silence or sulking and they speak freely but without forcing themselves into the center of the conversation. It’s not an attempt to ingratiate themselves with their man or his friends. It’s simply this extremely attractive capacity to go along with the rhythms and patterns of male camaraderie without sacrificing any of their femininity. Serbian men should consider themselves extremely lucky.

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And on a related and final note: it’s not a myth; it’s a fact that I’m sorry to report is true. One out of three people you pass on the street deserves a head-turn and a second looking-over; you simply can’t stop yourself. One out of…I dunno, I’m just stupidly throwing out numbers here…six or seven…or at least one person in every kompaniya/parea let’s say, are simply knock-outs: tall, long-and-strong-limbed, great noses, good jaws and a higher percentage of crazy green-hazel eyes than I’ve seen in any other country. It’s dizzying. And they know it too and there’s no false humility about it either and of course that only concentrates the effect.

Sorry, only the one pic below, which isn’t even mine.  I’m still too shy to photograph people without having a press i.d. round my neck.

Anyway, there are places you go to and say: “That was nice…” and then they go into your travel archives.  And then there are places that you know, as you’re leaving, you’re not finished with.  Belgrade I’m not finished with.

Belgrade street scene(click)

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Macedonia: Sveti Jovan Bigorski

4 May

 

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The Monastery of Sveti Jovan Bigorski, high up in a pass in the Šar Mountains that separate western Macedonia from Albania, was on our road from Ochrid to Tetovo in the northern plains of Macedonia.  This is really the way to drive through the country if you want mountain scenery as gorgeous as any in the Balkans, as opposed to down the central Vardar valley.  The monastery is dedicated to St. John the Baptist and though the Macedonian Orthodox Church is led by the Archbishop of the church-glutted lakeside town of Ochrid and has its seat in Skopje, this monastery is so important that it’s sort of the heart of Orthodox Macedonia.  Unfortunately, we arrived just as vespers were starting, so we couldn’t talk to anybody about the monastery, and our schedule didn’t allow us to stay through vespers, which is also unfortunate because the interior of the main church is stunning as well.  No pictures allowed though.

If looking at the pictures below, it appears that the monastery complex is in super good condition, that’s because it is.  Most of the complex, except for the church itself, burnt down in 2009 and has since been rebuilt (like the administrative buildings of the Patriarchate in Istanbul, which burnt down in the 40s and for which permission to rebuild was only granted by the Turkish Republic in the 1990s).  This is a kind of Ottoman tradition: build in wood, suffer repeated fires like the kind that wiped out whole districts of Istanbul throughout its history and killed tens of thousands.  Then rebuild in wood again.  It’s not known who said that the definition of neurosis is repeating the same action over and over and expecting a different result, but it also might be the definition of stupidity.  Only after a fire destroyed two thirds of Pera in 1870 in just six hours did people in those predominantly Christian and Jewish areas start building in masonry, which is why those neighborhoods are architecturally far older today than those of the now ugly two-thousand-year-old city on the original peninsula, where there is almost no old domestic architecture left (except, again, in former minority neighborhoods, for some reason, like Fanari or Balata or Samatya).  The fires also did create the famous Istanbul tradition of the tulumbacı (the “tube” or “hose” men? like the name of the dessert?) volunteer firefighters who were supposedly the great pallikaria of their mahallades, but just as often engaged in looting and robbing while doing their heroic duty.  NONE of this is a swipe at the Ottomans, Turks or Muslims.  Apparently the late Byzantines built domestic structures in wood as well — as did and do the Japanese, a culture I’d have no reason to mock.

And speaking of the Japanese…  The thought occurred to me at Sveti Jovan that just rebuilding things when they get too shabby or structurally rotted and dangerous is not such a bad thing.  The Japanese, for example, have a completely different concept of authenticity than we do.  If the Katsura, the Imperial Villa complex in Kyoto (below) seems to be in great shape even though it dates from the seventeenth century, it’s because, as with other ancient structures in Japan, the Japanese have no problem with just replacing old or rotting wooden structures with new ones piece by piece as necessary.  So the Katsura is — materially speaking or in our terms — really not that old at all; parts of it might be what we would consider brand new, in fact.

katsura_imperial_palace5katsura_imperial_palaceKatsuraShokin-teiKatsuradsc03371s(click on bottom two)

So what’s wrong with rebuilding the monastery structures of a complex like Sveti Jovan?  The stone is usually immune.  And if the rest is just wood and çatma and plaster anyway, why not replace it when it starts to go?

Back to Macedonia…  Sveti Jovan is the most impressive Orthodox monastery I’ve been in outside of Athos.  Nothing in Greece, Kosovo, or even Russia compares.  In fact, I would say that if any Orthodox — or any — woman wants to get an impression of what the great, sprawling monastic palace-fortresses of the Holy Mountain are like, then a visit to Sveti Jovan is mandatory.  Here are some pics; the last two of the church’s famous iconostasis were lifted from on-line.  (Click on all.)

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Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

Off to ex-Yugoland

25 Apr

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Ochrid, Macedonia

This was the summer that I would finally do it.  Me and a friend are off for a two-week tour through Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro.  (And yes, we’re calling it Macedonia and if anybody has a problem with that….emmm…tough shit; don’t read this blog.)  This is effectively the second leg of my journey; the first part was a visit to the monastery of Hilandar on Athos.  If I have the time and money I may do a Sarajevo to Belgrade run later in July.

I think you have to understand the degree to which I’ve saturated myself in everything about this part of the world for twenty-five years to understand my excitement.  When we crossed the border into Macedonia last night I nearly pissed on myself.  If you want to come with me on this trip in spirit you’ll get your hands on Rebecca West’s Black Lamb, Grey Falcon, a book written about her trips through Yugoslavia in the 1930s that is so by far the best, most perceptive, most loving book ever written by a Westerner about the Balkans that it might as well be the only book ever written by a Westerner about the Balkans.  Everybody I know in New York rushed out and bought it in the nineties because it was getting touted everywhere as the thing to read in order to understand the Yugoslav wars, and then dropped it about a quarter — if that far — of the way through because they decided it was too pro-Serbian — Western liberals generally liking to have their preconceived notions about places they don’t know shit about validated for them.  The reason I’ve inhaled all 1,100 pages of this book about four times is best expressed in Christopher Hitchens’ brilliant introduction to the 2007 re-edition, Hitchens being one of the only intellectuals of our time to understand the brilliance of West’s mind, and the complexity and depth of her thought about not just Yugoslavia or the Balkans, but about masculinity and gender, war and pacifism, nationalism, fascism, anti–semitism, and just about all else:

“She never chances to employ the word, but Serbo-Croat speech has an expression that depends for its effect not on the sex lives of humans, but of animals. A “vukojebina” – employed to describe a remote or barren or arduous place – literally a “wolf-fuck,” or more exactly the sort of place where wolves retire to copulate. This combination of a noble and fearless creature with an essential activity might well have appealed to her. The term – which could easily have been invented to summarize Milovan Djilas’s harsh and loving portrayal of his native Montenegro, Land Without Justice – is easily adapted to encapsulate a place that is generally, so to say, fucked up. This is the commonest impression of the Balkans now, as it was then, and West considered it her task to uncover and to praise the nobility and culture that contradicted this patronizing impression.

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Sveti Naum39628346Sveti Naum, Ochrid (click)

(You’ll also find yourself a copy of Djilas’ stirring, disconcertingly moving book as well.)

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I’m getting a good connection almost everywhere, but I may not have time to write a lot in the next few days — you’ll probably get some photos with quotes from West — because we’ll be on the road a lot.  But next week we’re anchoring for five days on Durmitor in Montenegro, near a town called Žabljak, apparently the highest inhabited village in the Balkans, and then I’ll probably have time to write some.  Till then…

Ochrid, Easter Friday 2014

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Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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